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Lippman wants justice for all

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, seen here in the gallery of the state Senate chamber, and a task force on access to civil legal services will release a report to the Legislature after conducting public hearings over the past two months to determine the level of need for civil legal services across the state. Photo by AP photo.
October 25, 2010
For every one person who receives civil legal aid, eight to 10 get turned away. For this very reason, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said there is still a huge need for additional funding for low-cost and free legal aid services in New York.

"It's my belief that civil legal services for the poor are just as important as schools and health care," he said. "When the economy's bad we never say 'gee we can't fund schools.'"

After a series of recent hearings in which elected officials, lawyers, businessmen, nonprofit leaders and everyday citizens gathered to testify, a task force will now write a report for the Legislature detailing the need for legal aid services in the state.

The Interest On Lawyer Account fund, which was established in 1983, helps low-income New Yorkers afford legal assistance in civil cases. These cases involve family, housing, income maintenance, consumer protection, health and employment issues.

On July 1, the Legislature sent out a joint resolution asking for an annual report with recommendations to address the need for legal service funding. This report is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 1, said Lippman, so that finding can be included in the next budget if necessary.

"I believe this report will be the most comprehensive of its kind in the country," Lippman said during a hearing in Rochester.

Lippman conducted four public hearings over the last two months to determine the need for low-cost and free civil legal services in New York.

The hearings were conducted by Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau and New York State Bar Association President Stephen Younger.

Legal services provided through IOLA are funded with interest that accrues after lawyers place money from court settlements into an account before it is disbursed to litigants, as well as from donations. The money is distributed to organizations across the state that help provide legal services to those who can't afford them, such as the Empire Justice Center, Legal Aid Society, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and New York Legal Assistance Group.

Falling interest rates left IOLA underfunded last year, and Lippman asked the governor and Legislature for help. The fund got a $15 million boost from the state budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year in the form of a one-time grant.

The four, three-hour hearings were held on Sept. 28 in Manhattan, Sept. 29 in Rochester, Oct. 5 in Albany and Oct. 7 in Brooklyn.

The Partnership for New York City describes itself as a network of business leaders dedicated to enhancing the economy of the five boroughs of New York City and maintaining the city's position as the center of world commerce, finance and innovation. Partnership President Kathryn Wylde, who testified at one of Lippman's hearings, said 15 percent of the population of New York is under the federal poverty level and that percentage is growing.

"We need to make sure that population is well represented or this will no longer be a state where economic opportunity is perceived as a reason why immigrants and why talent for the business community should be coming here," Wylde said during the hearing in Manhattan.

The hearings also gave those who benefit from legal assistance to explain how it has helped them get out of bad situations. Laura Hawk, a client of the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, was in an emotionally abusive relationship. With help from low-cost legal services, she was able to get a divorce and is in the process of getting custody of her three children.

"I wholeheartedly feel that I would not be in the position I am today without the legal aid counsel and assigned counsel in Buffalo," said Hawk during the hearing in Rochester.

Albany Housing Authority Executive Director Stephen Longo said his agency has a close partnership with legal aid services. He said civil legal aid is helpful during eviction cases and saves the Housing Authority money.

"I don't think anyone wins in that situation; [tenants] get pushed into the homeless provider network, which is already overburdened," Longo said. But, he said, if an attorney can come in and work with the Housing Authroity's counsel, together they can work to overcome the obstacles being faced by tenants and help them stay in their homes.

In a recent interview with WAMC Northeast Public Radio President and CEO Alan Chartock, Lippman discussed the importance of the IOLA fund.

"Number one, as a judiciary and as a profession, our constitutional mandate is equal justice for all," said Lippman. The chief judge also said equal justice has been a "moral and an ethical obligation going back to biblical times."

He added that "on a dollar and cents basis, it is penny-wise and dollar-foolish not to put a limited amount of funding into civil legal services so these people don't fall off a cliff and wind up being a burden on society."

He said that if given legal help, many people won't have to become dependent on social services such as welfare, which ultimately costs the state more money.

For is work with the IOLA fund and civil legal aid, Lippman will be receiving Special Project Champion award at The Legal Project's 15th Anniversary Pro Bono Reception on Thursday.

  1. print email
    October 26, 2010 | 09:40 AM

    The reason these legal services get so little support from both Democrats and Republicans (okay, the Dems mouth support, but don't actually give them much money) is the overtly political nature of so many of these attorneys. They always drag out the sob stories with clients, but the reality is a good portion of the taxpayer money going to legal services "for the poor" actually goes into lobbying and other clearly political efforts. Lippman himself is Exhibit A for the growing politicization of the courts and legal system. A boyhood friend of Sheldon Silver, no one seriously believes he would be Chief Judge if it weren't for his sponsorship by Silver. Since joining the Court, he has advanced one Left-wing policy after another, annoying fellow judges and attorneys. He is easily the most political of recent Chief Judges. The last thing we need is more lawyers in NYS.

    Bob Sarbane
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